Oh, stuff that Gibson

“If Eric Clapton had personally played all the guitars with his name on them, he would never have had the time to become famous.”

(Boring guitar chat alert)

Anyone who has an interest in life is going to want to share it with friends. It’s one of the penalties of friendship, that your friend could waste good drinking time droning on about fishing flies or his divorce or the golf or the latest version of Windows or Harley Davidsons or the price of property or Manchester United’s waning fortunes – and you would put up with it, for the sake of your friendship.

So, I happen to have an interest in guitars. So now you do too. And what I wanted to drone on about does in fact have wider relevance. It’s this:

Why are people so daft?

Now, I’m no expert. I bought my first guitar, or rather I persuaded my granny to buy it for me, when I was eleven years old. That was over half a century ago. I started a little pop group at my preparatory school, just three guitars, and we played Cliff Richard and Elvis covers, assuming they didn’t run to a fourth chord.

I gave up playing the guitar five years later, after a disastrous gig one night at my public school, when I just couldn’t play a note right. I hate to be embarrassed like that. And four years later, my friend Terry Milewski hocked my Hofner V3 to finance his escape to Canada, just ahead of the Doncaster police. There followed 32 years of serial marriages, during which there were to be no little personal luxuries.

Finally, four years ago everything came to a head. Freshly divorced, I was able to cash-in a long-ago paid-up pension plan; my father died, and left me some of his mother’s jewellery, which fetched a bit of money at auction…. at last, I was free and able to afford a guitar – which I had decided to take up again, only because I wanted to be a jazz singer but nobody else would play with me.

Now, as I said, I’m no expert – either as a player, or as a connoisseur of fine guitarware. I am learning all the time. And what I have learned is depressing, obviously (or it wouldn’t qualify for a mention on this, muh bogl).

What I have discovered is that if an old guitar has the word Gibson written on the headstock, the twiddly bit at the top end of the stick, then it will probably fetch between £2.4 and £24 THOUSAND, although it may well be made of plywood, as hollow-body Gibsons tend to be.*

But if it doesn’t bear the magic Gibson name, you can’t give the bloody thing away.

I discovered this, when I tried to sell my 1962 Epiphone E452T ‘Sorrento’ (see Posts passim). In 1956, Chicago Music, which owned the Gibson brand, acquired the Epiphone company. For ten years, Gibson remained the budget version of Epiphone, whose guitars were considered to have more cachet in the market. A number of models were created in parallel, using the same materials, dies and blanks, in the same factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and were sold under both brand names. They were identical, other than in some of the detailing and the quality of the fittings.

The E452T is, in fact, the slightly superior version of the Gibson ES125TC, which has been described as the ‘student’ model. But, thanks to clever rebranding, the 1960s Gibson nowadays sells as a collectors’ item for anything between £1,800 and £2,500, while I cannot even get an offer around £800 for my superior but otherwise identical Epiphone, which is in remarkable condition for 52 years of age and made by exactly the same people, in the same place, to the same design, from the same bits of plywood and metal, because it has the name Epiphone written on the twiddly end of the stick, and not bloody Gibson.

Guitars sell for even more, don’t they, when the name on the headstock is allied with that of some celebrity endorser. A good rockstar signature is often worth an extra few tens or hundreds of pounds, and makes for a story to attach to the product publicity. This usually tells of how the Gilded Demiurge has worked tirelessly for years in collaboration with craft elves of unrivalled artistry to design the perfect instrument for all of that stellar dexterity to rub-off on 15-year-old you, alone in your lonely room and dreaming of fame. If Eric Clapton had personally played all the guitars with his name on them, he would never have had the time to become famous.

Worse, is the dealer markup. I had to pay the dealer £1,400 to acquire my Epiphone. I fell for it two years ago, out of sheer boredom while attending a weekend jazz workshop. Amid another thirty or so foolish old men flourishing their cherished plywood Gibsons out of their plush coffins, many costing upwards of £10,000 (see, it gets worse!), to spend the hours before lunch dutifully strumming the changes from Sweet Sue under the jaundiced eye of a weary virtuoso, I could not stop my other self buying it. It had a wonderfully slick playing action and a great jazz tone, it played me for about an hour and I just had to have it…. I checked with Mister Internet, and found only three others for sale in the UK, not necessarily in such good or original condition, yet all costing more. It seemed like a fair price for a unique item: a ‘collectible’….

But every time you buy a ‘heritage’ guitar from a dealer, beware. He will be charging you twice what the instrument is worth, were you to presume to sell it again. And if you offer it back to a dealer, he will give you half of what you gave for it  and sell it on again for four times as much. No-one else will be very interested in buying it at any price: there are tens of thousands of secondhand guitars languishing on sales websites the world over. (To the hallowed halls of guitar fame, many are called, but, as I discovered on stage that night in 1965 in front of an audience of 200 uncomfortably shuffling schoolboys, few are chosen.)

You can never win, with a dealer. (They do, after all, have overheads. You don’t. Living is optional.)

And you can never win, if you fail to understand one thing about the magical quality invested in a brand: that graphic expression of people’s blind faith in meaningless symbols of power and prestige:

It doesn’t half improve your playing.

Postscriptum

The Friday-evening email Bulletin of Earthly Delights arrives from Guitar Guitar, a sales website not unknown to me, to provide a perfect example of what I am saying, innit.

There is a particular design of guitar called a ‘Les Paul’, doesn’t matter what that is. There was an original, once. Just to say that a pre-owned Les Paul-style guitar made by a company called Westfield is listed at £125, while the virtually indistinguishable-looking pre-owned Gibson ‘1959 edition’ Les Paul above it, signed by the rock god Paul Kossoff, is ‘Only £7,995’)….

Made, of course, from pure Martian crystal, inlaid with hens’ teeth; strings handspun by especially blinded fairies from Madonna’s personal hair….

*Hang on, I’ve just found a 1937 Gibson jumbo acoustic guitar online, advertised at a tad under SIXTY thousand… Blimey.

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Charity begins with a single step

Usually I don’t read post on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to take a look at and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, quite great article.

A fine endorsement there from ‘Updated’, who gives his/her address only as zeobon.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/chihayafuru-2-epi… xMcbrydeDiltz063@123mail.net124.13.69. (edited version). Thank you too, quite great Spammer, wherever you are! (I have traced this quite great address to an earthlike planet somewhere in the Horsehead Nebula…)

You know, fellow Spammers, complexity is all very well, but my own email address is simply @yahoo.com. I think that shows I’m a pretty straightforward kind of guy (and it saves so much writing-down time at social events). It’s been commented on recently that I have very few possessions: a small house (for sale), three or four guitars (for sale), a wooden bed, another wooden bed, a coffee table on which I am writing this, a pair of Eames chairs, a rug (handwoven in India, 100% acrylic) and a dribbly garden water-feature with LED lights (all for sale).

On the downside, I’m keeping the TV, it’s not plugged-in to an aerial but it’s useful as a big computer screen now my short-range vision has gotten so bad I have to carry a flashlight to read the product labels in Morrisons. I’ll be burning the boxes full of unopened bank letters and old CVs, I keep them only in case I am raided by the authorities or there’s a prospect of a job and so far, touch wood, I haven’t been and there isn’t. And, of course, Hunzi – although he’s more a close personal friend than a possession.

So I don’t feel that the Mahatma, Mohindas P. Gandhi would be looking down on me with too much disapproval, even though I may be English, white, posh-voiced and public-school/neocolonialist. I hope he would recognise a kindred spirit: material possessions are a terrible drag on spiritual progress. Some of his are up for auction this week, I read. A simple shawl, made from plain wool he spun himself (my ex-wife once made a pair of socks from our Angora goats and gave them to our wealthy neighbour as a Christmas present. We were that poor); and a pair of disintegrating leather flip-flop sandals, both expected to make over £10k.

So, I took my shoes along to the recycling bank last week and gave them away free. Bearing a US trademark heavily promoted to stand for pioneering American ruggedness, eternal vigilance, freedom, democracy, capitalism and the healthy outdoor life, for the last two years the damn Commie soles had been infiltrating rainwater by capillary action up off the street and into my sodden socks. It rains a lot here in coastal west Wales. Hopefully they will go to some poor person in a country where it never rains at all, India maybe, and provide years of useful service. Size 11 (46), black.

But, who knows, if enough people down the years discover and get to ‘like’ these simple, unpretentious blog posts, guaranteed free of SEO, and I acquire enough followers, like Gandhi, persuaded by my political philosophy of non-violence tempered with cowardly verbal abuse, one day long after I have been murdered by the neighbours they’ll fetch £10k too.

What goes around comes around, but charity surely begins with a single step.

The loser

Rareandvintageguitars.com replies to my email offering them my collectible, 1962 Epiphone Sorrento. (Someone shoot me now, but is it ‘collectible’ or ‘collectable’? Despite having edited more than 150 books, I have never known. I hate optional, I seek closure.)

It is one of four very similar instruments I can find online, all more expensive. I am offering to sell it for considerably less than I paid for it, allowing a fair margin to the reseller. But R&V are offering me less even than that. Much less. In fact, half.

An item like a collectable vintage instrument doesn’t depreciate, but its price fluctuates around a slowly rising median point, according to general economic conditions, as it matures. Whenever it is sold, it loses half its value. Whenever it is bought, it regains half its value, and then half again. Thus, over time buying and selling the same item generates a constant accumulation of money for the middle men and an equivalent loss for the unfortunate owners, who can never sell the thing even for what they paid for it. Trading collectibles is always a buyers’ market – unless you are the buyer.

Considering M&V’s paltry offer, I take momentary satisfaction from imagining how painful it would be to have the tuning head of a fine vintage guitar inserted briskly into one’s rectum – giving new meaning to the phrase ‘jam session’. But I am the real loser, which is more painful still.

*R&V emails me to say, they sold their Epiphone yesterday and lost £700 on the deal so that has nailed the market price to a new floor and they cannot offer more for mine. I almost sort of sympathise. I broke the cardinal rule: buy at the bottom, sell at the top.

Clinging to the wreckage

No bones about it, I need an income. (Shut up! Who doesn’t?) My overdraft is creeping back to its limit again, the bank is not unreasonably expecting to get something for their investment. The bill for another three months’ storage of furniture, including a drum kit, that wouldn’t fit through the door of my tiny cottage or find space inside is due at the end of the month. As is the outrageous bill for£475 the local battered-van-hire man has been demanding, after I accidentally scratched his already scratched and battered van, that he sent me out in with a burned-out clutch. Insurance? Maybe, but not in this case.

Against this, I have a few days’ part-time work this month, that I won’t get paid for until nearly March, and a cheque for £30 compensation from the gas company, that they sent me after I didn’t make a complaint. We live in austere times, though they may be looking up for the bread-and-sardines industry. (Feel free to subscribe anything you like to this blog if you enjoy reading it!)

So what am I doing about it? Well, as you may have read in Posts passim, I have various items I’m hoping to sell. My guitar collection. My car. My house. The problem being — I don’t know if you believe in such things — that there seems to be some universal, spiritual force that keeps throwing up apparently insuperable obstacles in my way, to what ultimate purpose it has not yet revealed (I suspect it is just to occasionally fuck me over).

The sale of my guitars has not been going well. There has still not been a single enquiry about my highly collectable 1962 Epiphone (see Post). I put the Ibanez in my local music store four months ago under the impression that they would display it in their secondhand section, only to find last week that they’ve got it hidden upstairs where it can only be seen by people who have somehow intuited that it’s there. The explanation being, that they thought it might get damaged if they put it where people could see it, it’s not their fault they haven’t sold it so I shouldn’t shout at them…  I am tearing out my hair.

The car, of course, you know about. After I advertised it, the door handle broke off in my hand, courtesy of Fiat Quality Control. I can’t afford to get it fixed – the spare part alone is £150 – and I can hardly expect to sell the car to someone who will have to scramble across the passenger seat to open the driver’s door. Can I? Actually, I don’t know why I’m even worrying about it, there hasn’t been a single enquiry about the damn car in three months.

So it’s the house? Well, no actually. I find myself in the bizarre situation where, since the pretend surveyor valued it at £2,500 less than either of the two firm offers I already had from buyers, as they both needed the maximum mortgage neither of them can now afford to buy it unless I drop the price to less than they are happy to pay. Don’t they always say a thing is worth whatever people are prepared to pay for it? Not when I am selling, obviously.

So I should drop the price? I probably would, were it not for the fact that the pretend surveyor also decided on a whim that the house needs a new roof, costing £6000, which the roofing man says it doesn’t. Now the recommendation is in the system, it can’t be reversed. So after spending £15,000 on my lovely studio in the garden I’m expected to knock £10,000 off the asking price? I don’t think so.

Maybe it’s not so bad here after all. Well, it is, but you know what I mean. Philosophically, it’s not where you live but how you live that’s important. I am barely living at all, but these things, we know, are comparative. I have my guitars, my car, a roof over my head, mostly